This dog is Billy, and he is mentioned in Stonehenge’s The Dog in Health and Disease (1859). Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh) believed that his very curly coat showed that he had some setter or spaniel in him, which is possible. He was owned by Bill George, the famous (or infamous) dog dealer, who is best known for developing the old baiting bulldog into a pet and show dog. Billy could have been a cross between a long-haired St. John’s water dog or wavy-coated retriever and a curly-coated retriever, a cross that would have happened fairly often before these dogs began to standardize.
Another depiction of a long-haired St. John’s water dog is this “St. John’s Labrador.”
I cannot find the original source for this image, but this particular dog has a straight, flat-coat, which is quite profuse. The dog appears to have a more substantial coat than Billy. He is also built more like a modern Labrador or a short-haired St. John’s water dog.
Of course, these dogs both could be thought of as wavy-coated retrievers, which were the ancestor of the modern flat-coats and golden retrievers. They were very common in Britain in the middle to later part of the nineteenth century.
One of the reasons why these long-haired dogs were so popular as retrievers is that Sewallis Shirley, the founding president of the Kennel Club, was a major patron of the breed.
The other reason is that these longer-haired dogs were the type of St. John’s water dog that were more easily procured in Britain. Long hair is a recessive trait to the smooth-haired St. John’s water dogs that were common in Newfoundland until the 1970’s. None of these later dogs had long hair, but they seem to have been really common in England during the nineteenth century, where they were often registered as wavy-coated retrievers.
The reason why the long-haired dogs became common in England and disappeared from Newfoundland can be found in the writings of William Epps Cormack, the first European to walk across the interior of Newfoundland in 1822. He wrote of the settlers of Newfoundland using their smaller water dogs to hunt waterfowl and game birds, but they preferred to use the short-haired dogs for this task:
The dogs here are admirably trained as retrievers in fowling, and are otherwise useful. The smooth or short-haired dog is preferred, because in frosty weather the long-haired kind become encumbered with ice upon coming out of the water.
Any long-haired puppies that would have been born to the smooth-haired dogs would have been among those they would have exported to Britain, where they would have worked very nicely as working retrievers on shooting estates. In the more mild climate of the British Isles, the long coat would not have been so much of a problem.
The famous wavy/flat-coat Zelstone, who was born in 1880. If one traces his pedigree, one notes that his paternal grandmother and his maternal great grandfather were both owned by someone named Farquharson.
That Farquharson was Henry Richard Farquharson, an importer and breeder of Newfoundland dogs. He was an MP from Dorset, where the port city of Poole is located. Poole was a major port for the cod fishing fleet that worked the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland. At one point, Farquharson had 125 dogs of the “Newfoundland” type on his property, Eastbury House. Keeping up with so many dogs was a daunting task for his servants:
Henry Richard Farquharson was also a fanatical breeder of Newfoundland dogs. He had a pack of one hundred and twenty five, 50 bitches and 75 dogs. This pack had taken twenty five years to create. Two kennel lads had the job of exercising the dogs. They knew that they had to keep the bitches and dogs separate whilst exercising them. One day both groups accidently met on Chettle Down and the two kennel lads could not stop a fight starting. Forty-five dogs were either killed outright or had to be put down. It is said that the two kennel lads were almost killed as well – not by the dogs but by Farquharson who had a remarkably quick temper.
(Farquharson also played a role in the Jack the Ripper story, but I’m leaving that out for this post!)
Those ancestors of Zelstone that were said to be owned by Farquharson were likely long-haired St. John’s water dogs that looked like the ones mentioned in this post.
Most of these dogs would have been registered as wavy-coated retrievers or would have been referred to as such. They would have been put to work on shooting estates and would have been bred to setters to give them and a stronger tendency to air scent birds and other shot game.
I’ve noticed that in much of the literature on the Labrador retriever, there is a tendency to ignore these long-haired dogs. That’s because the modern Labrador is derived mostly from later imports from Newfoundland. These dogs arrived in the 1880’s, and they were mostly smooth-coated. The cod fishery was in decline, and many of the ship’s dogs were no longer useful. So even the much valued smooth-coated water curs were arriving from Newfoundland by this time. Because the short-haired dogs made up the population of these later dogs, it was assumed that they every single one of these dogs that ever existed possessed the smooth “otter” coat.
If all St. John’s water dogs were smooth-coated, the smooth-coated dogs would have dominated the entire British retriever gene pool in the middle and later parts of the nineteenth century. This simply isn’t what the historical record shows— at all. Some of these dogs had to have had the feathered coat, and my understanding of Cormack’s account suggests the reason why the long-haired dogs became common in England and disappeared from Newfoundland.
The Newfoundlanders preferred smooth-coated dogs, and they were more than eager to export the feathered puppies to British dog dealers and shooting enthusiasts.
And the shooting enthusiasts were more than willing to buy them. Most sagacious animals. Gentlest retrievers with the softest mouths.
Just what the shooting sportsman needed. Long-haired water curs from Newfoundland.